Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Man Booker 2016: Shortlist time

The Man Booker shortlist for 2016 out. For the first year since 2011, I have neither the time nor, frankly, the interest, to commit to a reading challenge to cover the whole list (as I am no longer writing for the ezine that used to commission pieces on the Booker list, I also have less incentive to do so). Nonetheless, I have some general observations about the shortlist to make.

The six books listed are:
  • Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
  • Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
  • Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
  • David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
  • Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)
His Bloody Project, which is on my TBR pile, surprised many people by making it up from the longlist, as did the Deborah Levy and that book about modern masculinity (All That Man Is) that I managed 7 pages of before abandoning. I was personally a bit disappointed that the beautiful My Name is Lucy Barton didn't make the cut from the longlist - review of that one coming soon, when I get time! - but it is ever thus with the Man Booker; books about intimate lives, especially women's lives, aren't deemed important enough to be in the running for the gong.

So what have we got overall?

It's even-stevens on gender lines - 3 men, 3 women - but mightily skewed towards the transatlantic Anglophone hegemony. There are two USians, a Canadian, two English writers and a Scot in the mix, but no-one from anywhere else in the Commonwealth or indeed the English-speaking world. No representation from Africa, India, the Antipodes, the Caribbean, or Asia this year, at all. This is, you may recall, pretty much exactly what many predicted would happen when the Booker was opened up to the USians.

Thematically, it's a mixed bunch. His Bloody Project is a fictionalised historical "portrait of a murderer", which, on description, looks like it's drawing on influences both from the made-up history school of writing (exampled by AS Byatt in Possession) and the recent fascination with telling the inner story of horrific historical crimes (Hannah Kent's Burial Rites springs to mind).

The Sellout sounds like it could either be very good or very awful, but I approve of the fact that it *is* a risky plot - there is nothing cookie-cutter about the ideas it's grappling with. I have only skimmed a couple of reviews, but any book that takes on small town wastelands, civil rights, slavery, sociology, bigotry and the rewiring of societies through revolution, all set in Southern California, has to get at least respect for trying.

All That Man Is is allegedly about masculinity, told through the lives of nine men. I did not like the start and am not particularly interested in the theme, so I won't pursue this one.

Hot Milk is apparently about the mother-daughter relationship, but as Levy is one of my least-favourite contemporary authors, I will never know, cos this one is not on my horizon either.

Eileen sounds like it might have legs too (albeit a bit derivative), constructing a Hitchcockian noir crime plot out of a dispirited, downtrodden young woman's encounter with a charismatic co-worker who draws her into a folie a deux type scenario.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about the story of the Cultural Revolution in China and the years following that lead to 1989 and Tiananmen Square, told through the memories of a refugee who fled China and came to Canada. It sounds interesting, and possibly worthy (although let's hope not too much).

So common themes do not seem abundant in this crop. There are two crime-ish ones, one political / social / historical one, a relationship one, one about men, and one (The Sellout) that's hard to classify without reading it. (I think I am sufficiently intrigued to get hold of it, actually). I do note, with some jadedness, that books about *men's* lives are apparently important enough to be contenders, whereas a book like Lucy Barton that so beautifully examines *women's* lives are not.

It's not the best or bravest Booker shortlist I've ever seen, but there are at least three that look worth the trouble, so we'll see...

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